The Evolution of My Musical Tastes

December 25th, 2010

My first recollection of appreciating music – actually enjoying it as opposed to simply having it as part of the environment – came around 1963. I was 13 years old. My father would get up very early in the morning and drive to work 100 miles away. While eating breakfast, he would play some Strauss marches and waltzes. I would doze, half-aware of the music. Somehow, it drilled into my subconscious and I became hooked on it. I particularly liked the “Radetzky March”, and the “Acceleration Waltz”.

Later that year the Beatles hit the scene and all my fellow 8th graders were wild over the Beatles as well as the Beach Boys. They left me cold and I looked down rather snobbishly on my fellows. But a few years later, late in high school, I heard songs like “Eve of Destruction” and the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and “Nowhere Man” and suddenly I realized that there was more to this music than a throbbing beat. I fell for rock & roll – but I was still rather selective. A lot of stuff just seemed like fizzy nonsense to me, but the impressive songs came along frequently enough to keep me fascinated. Of course, I didn’t have much chance to listen to music back then. There were only two ways to listen to music: buy a record (a rare treat given the costs of records) or hear it on the radio. I didn’t like listening to the radio because most of the rock and roll on the stations was junk.

But a third way arrived when my father purchased a tape recorder for his stereo. Now I could record music from the radio and play it back at my leisure. My brothers helped, and we assembled a reel about an hour long with all the really good songs. Yes, this was before casette tapes. We used reel-to-reel tapes. That’s what I listened to all through high school.

In college I didn’t have much opportunity to listen to music, but I did manage to keep up with the Beatles and some of the other groups. It wasn’t until grad school that I was able to acquire a used tape casette player for $65. I also had a record player, and was able to purchase a few records. I got some headphones and would study in my cubicle with the headphones blocking out the sound from the other grad students in the office. My advisor would kick my metal bookcase when he wanted my attention. My musical taste in those days (around 1974) was confined to rock and roll.

The next change came in 1977 when I was on a business trip. In my hotel room, the local news station had a cute video put together by their cameraman showing the beautiful colors of the local trees that fall, and to accompany it, they played some Vivaldi. I didn’t know the piece at the time, but I still recall it vividly, and it was the first part of his “Spring” concerto from “The Four Seasons”. Oh, well, spring, fall, it was still great music. I fell in love with Vivaldi and added him to my musical pursuits.

Thus began my long journey into classical music. Not knowing where to begin, I tried some Beethoven, and was fortunate enough to pick one of his symphonies. That sold me on Beethoven, although I later discovered that some of his work, especially the stuff for just two or three instruments, wasn’t to my taste.

Then came Tchaikovsky, then Dvorak. At that point I ran into a brick wall. Bach didn’t do much for me. I liked the Brandenburg Concerti, but not much else. The Strauss music now struck me as little more than cute. I experimented with a great many composers, most of whom I didn’t much care for. I wasted a lot of money on records I really didn’t like.

But then the compact disk came upon the scene (for music, not data) in the early 1980s, and I had to make the jump. The first CD I bought was an 1812 Overture that had digitally recorded cannons. My speakers were too crummy to do justice to the sounds on the CD.

I tried a lot of the “bits and pieces” music: Chabrier’s “Espana”, Mussorgski’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”, the Brahms piano pieces, and so on. Some of these were great; some weren’t so good. But slowly my musical collection was growing, and my tastes were expanding. I liked about half of Mozart’s stuff; a little more Bach crept into my collection, as did a little Schumann and a touch of Wagner. Even some of Mendelsohhn’s work made the cut. Prokofiev was marginal, and I NEVER liked Mahler. Telemann had some pieces I liked.

But then something new happened. I had fallen in love with the movie “Koyaanisqatsi” and really liked the music. I went so far as to make an audiotape of the music from a videotape of the movie. Later, I found a CD with the music. Then I got the music from the followup movie, “Powaqaatsi”. Then I found some more work by Philip Glass, and liked much of it -- although some of it really fell flat for me. “Einstein on the Beach” was especially insufferable.

The last step in my musical odyssey came when I discovered some artists who had collaborated with Philip Glass: the Brazilian group Uakti, whose music I greatly enjoy, and Ravi Shankar, who after all these years is still making good music.

So, where has all this gotten me? Here are two ways to describe my current tastes, which have been stable for maybe a decade or so. First, here is my list of absolute, all-time best music:

1. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony
2. Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony
3. The opening piece from “Koyaanisqatsi”
4. “Meetings along the Edge”, by Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar
5. Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony
6. “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin
7. “Paint it Black” by the Rolling Stones
8. Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto
9. Beethoven’s Violin Concerto
10. “Cavalo Marinho/Bumba-meu-boi”, by Uakti

It’s hard to cut it off at ten items, and I’m sure that I’m leaving some out. But this is at least representative of my tastes. But there’s another way of assessing my tastes: my music collection, now ensconced in iTunes. Here are the composers I have in my collection, in rough order of how much music of theirs I have:

Philip Glass
Led Zeppelin
Scott Joplin
Strauss family
Rolling Stones
Ravi Shankar
Jefferson Airplane
Simon & Garfunkel
The Who
Tom Lehrer
Janis Joplin
John Williams
Richard Rogers
Moody Blues
Random Italian Operas
Bob Dylan
Celtic Harp Music
Judy Collins
The Doors
Loving Spoonful
Blood, Sweat, and Tears
Miscellaneous singles from rock and roll:
Joni Mitchell, Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, Chuck Berry, Turtles, Monkeys, Righteous Brothers, etc